Two Families Give the Gift of Nature
Conservation easements protect rare fen in Walworth County.
East Troy, Wisconsin | December 27, 2017
When the Boeing and Emmerich families bought their land near East Troy in Walworth County, they didn’t know it was special. They loved the rolling hills, the big oak trees, the wildlife. In time, they realized they had purchased part of one of the most biologically rich wetlands in southeast Wisconsin, known as Pickerel Lake Fen.
This winter, the two families donated conservation easements on their land to The Nature Conservancy to protect it. Through the easements, they have given up their ability, and the ability of any future owners, to develop the land.
“When we bought our property,” said Signe Emmerich, “the views of the fen from the hilltop first attracted us. But soon we noticed the details—the wildlife and the seasonal prairie plants—and we knew we had something special. We wanted to make sure all of it was protected even after we are gone.”
“I’m relieved,” said Jack Boeing. “Now I don’t have to stay awake at night worrying that someday someone will build condos on this land we’ve come to love.”
Jack and Marcia Boeing donated a conservation easement on a little over 153 acres of land, which encompasses the entire east side of Pickerel Lake Fen. Approximately 75 acres is high ground where many new homes could have been built.
Gerry and Signe Emmerich updated their easement on 7.5 acres, which they had donated to the Conservancy in 1985, with an amended and restated easement that also protects an additional 15 acres, eliminating the potential to build three new residences on the property.
The Nature Conservancy established its Pickerel Lake Fen Preserve in December 1985, when the Emmerichs donated their first easement; they also donated another 12.8 acres outright at that time. A week later, their neighbors, Roy and Eleanor Muth donated 27 acres to the Conservancy. Since 1985, the Conservancy has protected a little over 381 acres in and around the fen and lake.
Pickerel Lake Fen is home to pitcher plants and other showy species like marsh blue violet and Joe-pye weed. Rare turtles use the site as do sandhill cranes and other wildlife. According to the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the fen is tied for first place with Ottawa Lake Fen as the most biologically diverse fen in southeast Wisconsin.
Individually, the Boeings and Emmerichs have spent at least 30 years restoring the prairie and oak savanna that once occurred on their land and across the Midwest. But restoring the fen required team work.
Non-native shrubs, including buckthorn and honeysuckle, rimmed the edges of the fen and were slowly advancing on the interior. Left unchecked, they threatened to outcompete the native vegetation and eventually take over completely.
“We needed to burn the entire fen to keep the invasive shrubs in check,” said Conservancy Land Management Director Hannah Spaul. “But eight other private landowners owned portions of it, so the challenge we faced was how to gain their support for burning the fen, which is right in their backyards.”
Gerry Emmerich began talking to his neighbors about burning the fen, and all of them, including the Boeings, granted the Conservancy permission to burn on their land. The first burn of the entire 190-acre fen took place in April 2004.
Jack Boeing, who watched that first burn from his home, commented, “It was a windy day, so I was a little nervous before the burn. But once they got started, I was very impressed with the professional way they carried it out. They really knew what they were doing.”
Since 2004, the Conservancy and their neighbors have burned the fen two more times.
“We’ve done a good job of keeping the shrubs from taking over the fen,” Spaul commented, “but this is an ongoing process. We look forward to continuing to work with our neighbors to carefully apply fire to the fen to keep it healthy.”
“All of the places we love in Wisconsin have been protected because people like the Emmerichs, Boeings and their neighbors chose to take action to safeguard them,” said Mary Jean Huston, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s work in Wisconsin. “At the holiday season, we can think of no greater gift to current and future generations.”
NOTE: Map and photos available upon request.
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.